My scientific nemesis
February 16, 2008 7:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm a scientist. My ex is a scientist. We study similar things, and their name is starting to turn up in my literature searches. What to do?

My ex and I were newly minted grad students at different universities in different cities when we broke up a few years ago. For (mostly) unrelated reasons, I ended up taking some time off. I'm just now restarting my research. Between then and last year, I remained largely ignorant of what the ex was up to. I had a vague idea of what their research focus was based on what I knew of their interests, but we haven't spoken since then and I'd had no reason to keep tabs on their publications.

During my time away, I refined my research interests. When I came back I started to delve into these topics and soon discovered that my ex and I had ended up developing overlapping interests. We don't study exactly the same things, but there's enough similarity that I might end up needing to cite their papers on a certain topic. This is a problem. Anything connected to the ex is still likely to provoke some negative emotional reaction. Last year a mentor of mine (who like all of my colleagues knows nothing of the past relationship) suggested that I read a paper the ex co-authored. I could barely bring myself to read the abstract. Fortunately I ended up not needing to read it then, but I don't think I can avoid the ex's work indefinitely. There's also a nonzero chance we'll someday attend the same conference.

Just seeing the ex's name is enough to make me sick to the stomach. To make things even more complicated, it seems the ex is something of a rising star and has several awards and a tenure-track position at a prestigious university. Good for you, ex. You achieved everything you'd hoped to achieve in this timeframe. Problem is, that's what I'd wanted to achieve too. Knowing that the person who broke my heart got there before me is just salt in the wound.

There's still plenty of time for me to have my own successes (I've already had a couple honors of my own), but in the meantime I've developed an intense need to compete with the ex intellectually. If the ex won best paper awards I have to win some too. If the ex's work is praised I need mine to be praised at least as much. If the ex is at a prestigious university I have to end up at one, too. In certain respects internal competition of this type can be positive if it motivates you to be your best without turning into an obsession. In my case I fear it's already strayed into obsession and that I'll end up feeling miserable and inadequate if I don't have equal or greater "successes."

So, hive mind, I come to you today with two questions:

1. How to bring myself to a point where I can read the ex's scientific publications without all the anxiety and negativity?
2. How to scale back (or better yet, eliminate) my obsessive need to compete with the ex professionally?

Semi-obligatory email for questions and comments: mefisciencestudent @
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I presume by "they" you mean "ex + new partner," using new partner's surname?
posted by gottabefunky at 7:35 PM on February 16, 2008

This is jealousy. Not judging you for being jealous, I would be too, but this is a textbook case of why they say jealousy can destroy someone and burn them away from within.

It seems to me that the only workable solution must be to chastise your heart and pursue Buddha-like detachment rather than seeking any rationalization.
posted by XMLicious at 7:36 PM on February 16, 2008

I think the OP is using "they" to designate another person without specifying that person's gender. Although it's not strictly grammatically correct, it's a common usage and one that I personally think is very useful.
posted by amtho at 7:39 PM on February 16, 2008

Hopefully someone else will have some suggestions for the short term, but over the long term I can virtually guarantee that your research will lead you down paths you never dream of today. Presumably far away from your ex's interests. I've gone from glycolipids to enzymes, dabbled in platinum coordination chemistry, characterized monoclonal antibodies and a bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with what I worked on in academia. In a few years you'll find yourself in an area far from where you are today, with little chance of crossing paths with your ex.

Can you modify your current interests a bit to get a head start on the process? There are usually a number of interesting aspects to any experimental system, and maybe you could focus on something a little different from what the ex is currently working on.
posted by Quietgal at 7:42 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that the much larger issue here is that is that you've taken significant time away as you note and yet you haven't properly healed and moved on. I would say you should keep your focus on enriching your life in other areas and reconcile your emotions. That needs to be your primary focus.

In the meantime, the next thing to realize is that fear of anxiety is what feeds anxiety the most. Having that in perspective will help, believe me as someone who has worked through anxiety issues. Try to take control over other aspects of your life and learn to be present.

Finally, one benefit of being in the academic world is you can treat material objectively. Try not to worry about who wrote a paper, just focus on the content, what you can learn from it, and how you are enriched by it. Digest the information and grow.

Who knows, in a couple of months, perhaps you'll feel more confident, will be pursuing your own research, and you'll look back and wonder why you ever felt the way you currently do.

Good luck!
posted by miasma at 7:42 PM on February 16, 2008

Do you have any new love interests? A new relationship might help you get over your old flame.

You lead your own busy life now; without him/her. You have far better and more interesting things to do than follow up on or care about old exes. The sooner that you realise this, the better.

On preview: miasma has some good advice too.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:57 PM on February 16, 2008

Start banging someone else. This is not a joke.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:24 PM on February 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

I had a similar situation, only at the beginning of grad school. Nothing makes your heart jump out of your chest like turning a corner at a conference and seeing your ex standing there with their poster - ugh. You know what it took to be better? Time. I kept running into my ex for three years in a row. Each year it was pretty terrible, but each year it was better. Within that time I got married to my high school sweetheart and have formed my own successful line of research. They say living well is the best revenge - it's true, but it takes a while to get there.

It also helps that my ex ended up getting kicked out of grad school. Nothing like a little schadenfreude to brighten your day...
posted by prefrontal at 8:38 PM on February 16, 2008

You might want to try doing a little cognitive therapy on yourself. You say "just seeing my ex's name makes me sick to my stomach" Sit down with a piece of paper and write down all the negative thoughts that go through your head as you think about see the ex's name and thinking about the ex's success. (Examples might be "I'm a failure." "Ex is a better scientist.") Even if you know it isn't true, if you are thinking it, but it on the list. Then for each item on the list, write down a true, positive counter-statement and give examples. WRITE THIS DOWN. Then practice each time you have a negative thought, stop and remind yourself of the positive thought. If this is really bothering you, keep a journal to track if you thought about your ex, what you thought and if the thoughts were negative what the positive counter-argument would be. (I'm not a therapist - you could probably find a more complete description of this approach somewhere but this is the idea.)

Also, if you need to read an article by your ex, I suggest that you print it out, and take a black marker and cross out the author's name - as symbol of the fact that you don't care who wrote it, you are just reading for content.

Finally, it is OK if anything relating to your ex triggers negative feelings as long as the feelings aren't getting in the way of you living your life and doing your work. Try to follow XLMicious's advice to detach from the feeling. You want a part of yourself to notice that you are having negative emotions - the key is that you notice the feeling and acknowledge that you are having the feeling and what triggered it and let it pass - don't let the feeling cause a cascade of other bad feelings, just note the feeling and realize that it will pass.
posted by metahawk at 8:40 PM on February 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding Optimus. Nothing makes the jealousy beast recede faster.

And publish, friend, publish.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:23 PM on February 16, 2008

I'd say metahawk's writing and Optimus' find a new flame are the best advice. If it's been this long, it sounds like you haven't properly dealt with things. After 3+ years and things are still tough, I'd say maybe see a mental health expert, somebody who can help you talk through these issues. This is something that's going to be affecting your work, your career, so you want to get it properly taken care of. Try out metahawk's advice, writing things down and all that, but if it doesn't seem to help, then go see a pro.
posted by Jhoosier at 9:46 PM on February 16, 2008

People who are really exed with their exes DO NOT CARE about this sort of thing.

I don't care what kind of damage he did to your self-esteem, what you feel you need to prove to him, etc: I guarantee that he is not spending as much time thinking about you as you are obsessing about you.

Get over it already.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:39 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

As nice as it might be to manage to avoid the ex forever, in doing so you're giving him/her power that (s)he doesn't deserve. I'd imagine your similar interests probably helped bring you together in the first place, and it'd be foolish to forsake your ideas just because you might have to cite Dr. Ex in your papers. You don't want to sacrifice a part of yourself for this kind of hurt. So do the research that interests you, ex be damned. That's why you became a scientist in the first place, right? Don't let an unhappy love affair take that away from you.

Science builds upon what came before, and you'd be shooting yourself in the foot if you eschewed reading certain papers purely because your ex's name is attached to them. Even if you do avoid reading his/her work, you might end up stumbling across mention of it anyway if someone else's paper cites it. So you follow step 1, you end up finding the ex wrote a paper you need to read. Step 2: Read it. If it helps to cross out his/her name, do that. But read it. Analyze it. Think about it critically, just like you would about any other piece of work. Odds are you'll probably start thinking about directions (s)he hasn't explored, and you can start to carve your own niche.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, step 3: let it go. This isn't easy, I know, but clinging to the past like this isn't doing you any good. It's completely normal to be hurt and jealous, but there's a difference between acknowledging that you're having a normal human response and letting yourself be carried away in it. As several commenters above have said, you need to detach yourself from the negative feelings and stay in the present. Learning to do this now will also help you later when you cross paths with your ex at a conference somewhere.
posted by Aster at 10:55 PM on February 16, 2008

First and foremost, you are basically letting your ex rent space in your life. He has parked his ass on your mental sofa and he has no intention of leaving. The only way to get rid of him is kick him out! You need an eviction notice for your brain so you can start getting your life in order.

Of course, the hard part is how? Me, I kept a journal. It wasn't a daily journal where I wrote down my actions and emotions, at least, most of it wasn't. The majority of it was quotes that I heard from my friends that made me smile, things I heard on the street, sketches, photos taken with my cheap polaroid. I took it with me everywhere I went and you know what? It helped me. I started noticing the world around me again, the small little details in life that made me happy, made me think, made me realize that my life was made up of so much more than my ex.

The thing is, you have a life that is full of promise and you are letting one little thing hold you up. I know it doesn't seem like a little thing now, but I promise you, it really is. If you can remind yourself of just how much makes up your life, you will realize that he is a very small part of it. Those memories that you have are just that, memories, and a lot has changed for both of you. The best thing you can do for yourself (and the best way to spite him if you must) is to live your life to the absolute fullest and show him how it's really done.

Sounds crazy but it really worked for me.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 11:23 PM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think you need something that can occupy your mind to compete with the hold they have on your thoughts. Start seeing something else, get absorbed in your work, but whatever you do, do it for yourself. The opportunity cost of doing something only to spite someone else will make any sense of triumph ultimately pyrrhic.

I'm saddened that the OP using they as gender neutral singular didn't set a precedent for the thread.

On the other hand, I hate it when people fuck with 'begging the question'. What does that make me, a hypocrite? Well, fuck.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:54 PM on February 16, 2008

Desensitize yourself. Take a weekend, google the ex to death and print all their articles. Maybe brace yourself with alcohol (or not), and read one. So, you cry and you remember how they used to speak this way, and how you were always at them to fix this habit of writing this word too often, or whatever. Have a big old sob session, put it all away and go for a run, or some kind of exercise where you're working too hard to think. Do it all next weekend. Make an effort not to cry. Note that X is not actually a genius, just smart, and well, hell, your taste in partners always was excellent, so it was inevitable you'd end together. Pack it all away and go for another run. Third weekend, hopefully sit with a good friend and have a funeral for a fling, talk about what was good, what made you break up, what you hope for the future, and then decide to do some very positive things.

Some very positive things might include treating the X like a cigarette addiction. Some people use nicotine patches, maybe you could use Optimus Chyme's big bang therapy. Another thing people do when they quit smoking is decide not to think about it and XMLicious's detachment of the buddha works well there too. Remember that mental processes take habitual building. Everytime you note yourself feeling jealous or maudlin, remind yourself with as much unconcern as the following: "yeah, X, I used to have a thing with him/her", and take a deep breath and think of Shroedinger's kittens.

It takes practice and work to get over someone, and I believe you put it in the too hard basket. Some people say you can't move on until you've lived through the pain, so do that. Let the pain happen, but don't let it stop you from doing anything.

Oh, and if pain persists, please see a doctor.
posted by b33j at 12:16 AM on February 17, 2008

I'm saddened that the OP using they as gender neutral singular didn't set a precedent for the thread.

You're right, I should have addressed it as him/her, my apologies on this error.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 1:08 AM on February 17, 2008

Metahawk has awesome advice. If you want that advice fleshed out a little bit, read "Feeling Good" by David Burns. It's pretty standard CBT though--I'm sure other books cover those techniques.

Now, about conferences where you may run into ex-person--talk to a psychiatrist or your doctor about a small prescription of anti-anxiety medication. Explain the situation, and especially tell them you're exploring CBT as a long-term solution. One anti-anxiety pill could pull you through a really icky situation, say a first meeting at a conference. A small prescription of say ten could get you through a year or more. That, coupled with some good CBT practice and time and you'd be gold. CBT could work without the medication, but I don't know exactly what you need. This is just something you could discuss with your doctor. I know it helped me. (Medication like that is best used in serious emergency-only situations, rare ones where you think you might barf or pass out or do something wild like pee on a nasty person's shoes).

Also, it takes time. I took five years to get over feeling sick when hearing an ex-lover's name once upon a time, and we didn't exactly have overlapping careers. It'll happen; you'll get over the ex. But don't feel like a failure if it's taking longer than you wanted.

You have my sincerest sympathies. I know it's rough.

(Also, b33j, "big bang theory?" That's just hilarious!)
posted by tejolote at 1:17 AM on February 17, 2008

There's still plenty of time for me to have my own successes (I've already had a couple honors of my own), but in the meantime I've developed an intense need to compete with the ex intellectually.

This is a very conflicted sentence. Focus on the former, detach yourself from the latter.
posted by spiderskull at 1:43 AM on February 17, 2008

You got dumped and you somehow devalued them in your mind to keep going/get over them. Sometimes that works, probably not this time if you want to keep your sanity. Your best chances to get over this and detach them from your life are to be as honest and as you can with how you feel ... not the "I'm angry/jealous", that stuff just keeps self fueling, but the stuff underneath that .. why you're angry and jealous.. you're heart was broken by someone who you respected and thought that they respected you.. you probably blame them/yourself .. get it out in an honest way and you'll have a chance to get over it.. .. and preferably find someone to talk to about it.
posted by blueyellow at 4:51 AM on February 17, 2008

I'm not a scientist, but I know a couple. From what I've heard, research labs & academics are some of the most gossipy, petty places a person can be... particularly if you are just starting out. Add to that a list of factors (crazy hours, overidentification with projects, etc) and it can be hard to keep your laundry under control, let alone get zenned out over your ex. And that's even without the ex showing up all the time, recommended by a mentor, and as a reminder of what was and as a symbol of what you want to be professionally.

You need to stop seeing him, Dr Ex, when you see his research. It's that simple. It's hard to do that when you're in an environment that doesn't always allow it. But if you want to be good at any profession, scientific or not, you need to develop that perspective. Hate his guts if you want to, but read those papers of his recommended by his mentor. See his ideas and outcomes with a clear eye, and soon enough, he'll be seeing your name in papers and asking the hive mind for advice.

I suspect that once you get your feet under the table a bit more, you'll be too busy to hate the ex's guts anymore when you see his name on a paper. You aren't being fair to yourself when you compare your career to his. He's effectively a few years ahead of you. Down the road, you'll be there too, in your own way.

Quietgal's also brought up a really good point. Who knows if you (or he) will be in the same research field five or ten years from now? If you'd have told me ten years ago that I'd be doing what I do now, I'd have laughed out loud at your crappy powers of prognostication. Not saying you or he need to cede the field, but I am seconding the idea that this won't last forever. You'll be known for different papers, different research, even if it's in roughly the same field.

You've chosen a line of work that requires you to put aside personal biases as much as possible in pursuit of something bigger than just your opinion. I know it isn't a warmfuzzy thing to comfort yourself with, but it might be something to help you get out of that terrible, self-doubting, jealous, painful place.
posted by Grrlscout at 5:03 AM on February 17, 2008

(I'm just gonna type 'her' and 'she' because 'he/she' is a pain in the ass.)

What your ex is up to is not about you, OP. Her achievements are not comments on you, nor do they alter the nature of your own achievements (you're a grad student in science? That's something right there, by the way). She probably doesn't give a shit what you're doing with your time, nor should she. Her shell has hardened enough to enable her to do interesting work without you.

What's more, she's just another scientist doing work. Awards can be gotten in all kinds of ways; they're partly political, partly coincidental, partly fashionable - and yes, partly they're about ability. You dated someone who's apparently pretty smart, and willing to work hard. Good for her!

But she's moved on. She is no doubt moving on further as we speak.

One of my biggest post-breakup hardships has always been recognizing that I'm not the center of my XGFs' worlds anymore, that they decided they could do better. Finally accepting this helped me approach the problem of selecting a GF in a more considered way (but no less passionately - you can be passionate about consideration).

So to me, the big step has always been: you've got to fill up your own life, recognize the worth of the things you're doing, take them seriously, carve out your own niche, spend time with people authentically engaging with them, sharing something of yourself with new friends and lovers. As many people have said before, the answer to crappiness in some part of your life is more life. Do more things. Go to more conferences, talk to more people in your field, immerse yourself in the day-to-day joys of your own research. Work hard at your classes and don't think about grades - hell, they don't matter anyway once you're in grad school. (I'm serious about this: consider just not finding out your grades. You don't actually need to read your transcript, you just need to know that you're working absolutely as hard as you're able at all times.)

Make sure you pick research projects that are exciting to you. Silly exercise, maybe it'll suck, maybe it could help: write out what's awesome about your current work. Cook up a version of your elevator pitch, the 30-second pitch, the 5-minute pitch.

Imagine yourself pitching your own work to your ex. Are you proud of the work? Awards and other mutually-masturbatory bullshit aside, are you proud of what you're making of yourself?

Consider just telling her - drop her a line, say 'Hey we're in the same field, great job getting this position, any advice?'

The process you're asking for help with is called 'growing up' and it never ends and there's nothing you can do to make it easy. You know this already. But then you also already know how to go about it - you just need to start. So what advice have you been given since you were a squalling babychild? 'Start small.' 'Treat yourself.' 'Confront what frightens you.' It all still applies.

As for dealing with jealousy: time will tell. The better you feel about your own situation the less you'll dwell on this. Has it been years since you had contact with the ex? You've had plenty of time to move on. You don't want to let her be a goddamn human being, you've made her a character in the Story of You. Give her some credit for heaven's sake: she turned out to be a person after all. Maybe she'd love to hear that from you.
posted by waxbanks at 7:17 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I might end up needing to cite their papers on a certain topic. This is a problem.
Last year a mentor of mine (who like all of my colleagues knows nothing of the past relationship) suggested that I read a paper the ex co-authored. I could barely bring myself to read the abstract.
Just seeing the ex's name is enough to make me sick to the stomach.
In my case I fear it's already strayed into obsession

I'm going to go against the tide and say that if this is bad enough to interfere with your job (research), which it is, then you should get professional help.

If you're in a grad program, you're two steps ahead--your university has counselors in the health center, who can help you. They have expertise and experience, and they will be able to give you advice and help that we simply can't give because we won't be there on an ongoing basis. The most important thing is that you pick someone that you like--don't be afraid to go through a few people until you find one that you "click" with.

Good luck--don't give up hope.
posted by sondrialiac at 8:56 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit surprised that (unless I misread the comments so far) nobody has commented on the fact that you haven't told anyone about the Ex. Once you have established your own identity in your department (as you have probably already done), it might be helpful to acknowledge to some friends in the department that you have some history with the ex.

I dated someone very seriously for a number of months when we were both 18. We were both working on combined honours degrees, and were in the same department for one of the two majors (we met in an advanced class in the subject). We broke up in a fairly difficult way toward the end of an academic year and then spent 4 of the following 5 years studying many of the same things at different universities in three different countries (because that's where the academic path was leading us both). At one point relatively early on we were even housed in the same 28-person house. We are still, many years later, working in the same general field. At first I really hated situations in which we had to be in the same room together - and often we were in the same class together - but it got much, much better over time.

One thing that helped me was being able to talk about the situation with friends - not dramatically, not accusingly, and not until we were already friends, but then as a matter-of-fact point of information. It was great knowing that my friends knew a bit about how I felt, and that they were there with me in some of the more awkward encounters. They made their own judgments about the ex and related to the ex as they saw fit, but they were aware of situations that were likely to make me tense, and were there for me at potentially awkward encounters.
posted by sueinnyc at 10:34 AM on February 17, 2008

I disagree with the notion that people who are really "exed" from their exes don't react this way. I had a similar reaction (and still do) to an ex who stalked me in person and defamed me online. Just seeing that person's name makes me sick to my stomach, because it reminds me of that awful time.

Don't assume it's just "I'm sore because I got dumped." There are a lot of reasons someone might be really damaged by an ex.
posted by InnocentBystander at 10:36 AM on February 17, 2008

You need to forgive them for whatever they have done to you. That doesn't mean let them back into your life, or forget what lessons you've learned and wisdom you've gained.

But you need to work on forgiving them. You are punishing nobody but yourself until you do.
posted by jpdoane at 11:25 AM on February 19, 2008

So do the research that interests you, ex be damned. That's why you became a scientist in the first place, right? Don't let an unhappy love affair take that away from you.

I agree with this advice, and with everything waxbanks said. Re-connect with your soul and passion, with what got you in this field originally, and then who cares who is doing what? You're doing what you have wanted to do your entire life! That passion will draw others to you and ultimately take you a lot further than jealousy will.
posted by salvia at 6:23 PM on February 19, 2008

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